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My Life as a Screenwriter You've Never Heard Of (Guest Column)

Life as a Screenwriter - H 2013

Justin Marks has written over 20 movie screenplays and seen his TV pilots greenlit — but as he explains, the life of a Hollywood scribe is far more lows than highs if your name isn't Aaron Sorkin.

This story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Here’s a day in the life of a writer that you don’t always get to hear about.

It was 5 p.m., and I was playing Call of Duty. Why? Because I wanted to. The phone rang; it was a producer with whom I’d just spent the past two years laboring over a cable pilot, a time-travelly science fiction thing. We’d delivered the final cut to the network, and we were awaiting The Call — the one where you hear that your show, which tested well, is being picked up, that your life is about to change.

But the producer had That Voice. Any experienced writer knows That Voice. Because That Voice means one thing: The network passed. “Hey,” the producer said, “we fought for it till the end. We’ll find something else.” I agreed. And that was that.

Probably not three minutes had elapsed in my game of Call of Duty. Two more minutes to go upstairs and erase my now-dead pilot’s name off the list of projects on my dry-erase board. Two years of effort gone in five minutes.

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As I wiped the board clean, I saw another project listed below. Kind of a back-burner thing — I was busy at the time — but I owed the producer a call. So I picked up the phone. Told him I was in. By the next morning, I was back at the keyboard, as if yesterday’s pilot had never happened.

And that, my friends, is what it means to be Just Another Working screenwriter.

During the past decade, I’ve been paid to write just shy of two dozen screenplays. Some scripts get made, but most don’t. My name has only remained on one. I’ve been lucky enough to write originals and adapt comic-book properties (Green Arrow) and popular toys (He-Man, Voltron). I make a decent living, but it’s not all glitz and glamour. My wife and I live in a comfortable house in Los Feliz. I drive a Prius, a car they might as well hand out with WGA cards.

I had the fantasies of what this life would be like — a life that, for most, never will be a reality. I’ve wanted to write movies since I was 12 years old. I wanted trips to backlots, premieres, moments of seeing my movie on the shelf at the video store. That’s what we sign up for.

Then there’s the other 90 percent: waking up, walking the dogs, grinding away at my computer in the clothes I slept in. Occasional fits of creative euphoria interrupted by phone calls from agents, arguments on Twitter or the dogs barking at squirrels in the yard. But when it picks up — when there’s a movie being made or a star being attached or a deal being closed — man, that high feels like it’ll last forever.

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Until it doesn’t.

We learn to numb ourselves to the ups and downs. Especially the downs. No one likes to linger on failure in Hollywood — not execs, not agents, not us. We erase the failure in our minds. We move on to the next great hope.

But I’m a screenwriter, and it’s my job to be sentimental. So to remember why I do what I do, here’s a little something I hold on to, just for me …

It was a few days before we wrapped the pilot, up in Toronto, and I was leaving the set. I said good-night to a handful of actors who were rehearsing in a make-believe particle collider. I walked past a 1928 Buick Touring being painted for tomorrow’s scene. I crossed through a greenscreen stage being lighted for pickups. And I smiled at an extra in a wedding dress on her way to being photographed for inserts. Then I stopped because I realized that for a moment, I’d been privileged to walk through my own imagination. I was 12 again.

For those of us who aren’t Aaron Sorkin, that’s what carries us into the next day. Everything else is just stuff we try to forget.